Intentional, Responsible Volunteering Abroad

By Jessica Sabo

Google “Short term volunteer,” and chances are you’ll find dozens of sites offering trips lasting from two weeks to several months where you can pay to volunteer with initiatives in countries from Tanzania to Romania.  You may come across the buzz word “voluntourism”—a controversial new term I learned while researching for this blog post (Deo, 2013).  This trend specifically has turned many orphanages, including those in Cambodia, into businesses driven by tourist needs rather than the children’s needs (Aljazeera, 2012).   Dig a bit deeper, and you’ll also find a number of blogs and articles arguing the positives and negatives of going on overseas volunteer trips (Morgan, 2010).


Negatives? Until recently, I was naively not aware that there could be drawbacks to volunteering abroad.  Raised on volunteer/aid organizations like Habitat for Humanity and World Vision, as a teen I was strongly driven by the sincere desire to “help.”  My church and other organizations gave me numerous opportunities to volunteer and our intent was to spread love, skills and/or service to partnerships they’d made with established NGOs in developing countries.  These trips also emphasized life-changing experiences—ones that opened my eyes to the conditions in developing countries and the visible extent of poverty rarely seen so blatantly in the US.  What could be negative about helping, expanding my perspectives, and seeing the world in the process?

Well, potentially nothing.  But then, potentially a number of things.

I’m not here to perpetuate guilt by slamming this blog post with all the ways well-meaning Westerners can do more harm than good when visiting developing countries. Though if you plan on taking a service gap year or likewise dedicating your time overseas, it’s worth researching.  Actually, PLEASE research it.  There is a list of sites at the bottom of this post to start you off.  You can even go a step further and start a conversation with the organization you’ll be working with, through email or phone, about what is REALLY needed (Jessionka, 2013).  Because the reality is that the desire to “help,” without cultural education and a good hard look at Western privilege, really can do more harm than good. 

As a part of an educational Service-Learning team that plans on bringing our education and skills to several NGOs in Cambodia this May, it is important to me that we approach our trip with as much respect and awareness as possible.  How can we avoid making ethnocentric judgments and assumptions steeped in our Western privilege?  How can our presence be one based in collaboration, sustainability, and mutual benefit?

I consolidated the blogs I read into three brief points that I found to be helpful.  I also found that, thanks to the sincere curiosity and consideration of this year and past years’ NCAS-I teams, we have already started and continue to wrestle with these important conversations:


1. Arrive with some knowledge of local history and culture, the language, and social norms.

Many volunteer and educational groups and individuals visit countries without first educating themselves about how to…well, not stick out like a sore, American thumb.  At best, cultural ignorance can lead to annoyance. At worst, our presence and behavior can potentially insult, disrespect, and disrupt the very people whose hospitality we’re depending on.

We are so fortunate as a team to have Chatti, a woman who lived and worked at an NGO in Cambodia, who has been teaching us basic Khmer and educating us in the social norms and nuances of Cambodian culture.  We may not be able to totally avoid awkward situations, but our goal is to be guests who can actively participate in the culture with grace, respect, and sensitivity.

2. Consider the developmental priorities of the host community before making any projects or plans.

 This one may sound like a no-brainer.  Who of us would appreciate someone coming into our home and telling us what THEY think needs to be done without asking us what our priorities are first?  But believe it or not, this happens all the time.  Volunteer groups often bring ideas for big projects that are not in line with the host site’s priorities, or they bring suitcases of gifts that are not sustainable with the local resources.  This fosters disempowerment and reliance on foreign aid.  Rather, emphasis should be on collaborative projects that lead to continuity and ownership within the host community. 

NCAS-I has received feedback that the art therapy training and interventions we share with the sites are needed, appreciated, and are being used after we leave.  As the program expands and changes, it will be of utmost importance that we continue to communicate with the sites to make sure we’re on the same page.  Our current group is discussing this weekly and weighing ways to realistically utilize local resources and offer interventions that are easily adapted between cultures and available supplies.

3. Be realistic about what can be achieve in the short term.

We will be in Cambodia for three and a half weeks.  It will take at least at least a week to recover from jet lag and adjust to the heat and food and transportation and general culture shock.  Due to the nature of our own learning curves as students, we likely will not drastically change the lives of the clients we meet.  Support and encouragement for our Cambodian colleagues–the local art therapists and counsellors “on the ground”–may be one of our most valuable contributions, and this impact will slowly unfold in the long-term. 

NCAS-I Service-Learning

As a team, we have discussed our goal for this to be a Service (big S) – Learning (big L) project, where the emphasis is on both terms equally.  Our trip has helped to raise awareness in our Boulder community about the trafficking industry and cultural issues in Cambodia.  However, the heart of our actions on the ground is based in a continuous, mutual exchange of knowledge, experience, and opportunity.  We come to Serve by facilitating art therapy education and groups, and we are Served by the NGOs’ accommodation and feedback.  The Cambodian therapists and clients will Learn from the presentations we bring, and we as students will Learn cultural sensitivity, how to administer an assessment, and how art therapy is utilized in another culture. 

The intentional, mutually benefitting nature of this trip is one of its strengths, and I look forward to being a part of growing the relationship between Naropa art therapists and our Cambodian colleagues abroad. 



Aljazeera. (2012, June 27). Cambodia’s orphan business. Aljazeera. Retrieved from

Coles, D. (2012, November 14). A rant about overseas volunteering. Retrieved from

Deo, Ritwik. (2013, January 30). The tragic rise of gap year voluntourism. The Independent. Retrieved from

Jesionka, N. (2013, October 18). How to make a real impact on your volunteer trip. The Muse. Retrieved from

Morgan, J (2010) Volunteer tourism: What are the benefits for international development?. The Voluntourist Newsletter, 6 (2) n.d., Retrieved from

Zakaria, R. (2014, April 21). The white tourist’s burden. Aljazeera. Retrieved from

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